Few footballers can claim to have revolutionised their position or to have brought about a new way of understanding the game. Johan Cruyff is certainly one, Diego Maradona is probably another. Bayern Munich legend Franz Beckenbauer is a third, but Manuel Neuer's career so far justifies placing him into the same bracket.
Neuer, who joined Bayern from Schalke in 2011, has redefined the role of the No.1: the 33-year-old has almost single-handedly turned the goalkeeper into an outfield player as much as a stopper. In large part down to Neuer, the term sweeper-keeper (itself a homage to Beckenbauer) is now common parlance among football observers, with the Gelsenkirchen native almost universally recognised as the prototype.
Germany goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke went so far as to suggest that he'd "never seen a better sweeper [than Neuer], apart from maybe Beckenbauer".
Watch: Neuer revolutionising Bundesliga goalkeepers!
As any guerrilla worth his salt knows, however, you can't instigate a revolution without a good vanguard, or a solid initial base on which to build. Neuer has the requisite foundation of a solid technique and has always been among the world's elite when it comes to a goalkeeper's bread and butter: shot stopping and dominating his area.
Neuer's size - he stands at 6'3" - and natural athleticism help in making these saves and with dominating his box, as well as throwing opposition attackers off balance. “A lot of their players didn’t want to go into the one-on-one because I’m big,” he told Sports Illustrated after Germany's 1-0 win against Algeria in the World Cup 2014 Round of 16.
Watch: re-live Neuer's stunning save against Cologne on MD23 of the 2016/17 campaign!
On top of his excellent grounding in the goalkeeping art, Neuer rarely – if ever – makes mistakes. While learning his craft as a youngster in the eye of the Schalke and Bayern spotlight, there was the occasional error; those have since been eradicated completely from his game, no doubt down to Neuer's hard work on his positioning, concentration and shot stopping on the training ground.
A further area in which Neuer excels is the penalty shoot-out – always crucial for a No1, but penalty-saving skills are conspicuous by their absence in the armoury of many a goalkeeper. Perhaps because of his size, the Bayern stopper has an excellent record of saving from the spot, repelling over a third (18 of 57) sent his way during his career.
That figure does not include penalty shoot-outs, but noticeable in crunch shoot-outs has been the typically Teutonic confidence with which Neuer has stepped up to take a penalty, as well as saving from the opposition, his mere presence alone often enough to put the taker off.
Captain, my captain
The 33-year-old slotted his spot-kick in the 2012 Champions League final against Chelsea and said during EURO 2016 that "my job is primarily to stop the opposition scoring from the spot, but if others are nervous then I'd definitely take one."
Such qualities command respect, from team-mates and opposition alike, and it was little surprise that when Bastian Schweinsteiger relinquished his role as captain of Germany following EURO 2016, Neuer was swiftly installed as his replacement.
When Philipp Lahm retired in the summer of 2017, there was little doubt at Bayern about who would inherit the armband, despite the Bavarians boasting a squad replete with international stars.
As he explained to Sports Illustrated: “I’m a little bit risky, but [I offer] security and protection, and you have to give your teammates that feeling as well. It’s better for me to get the ball before the striker can than to have a one-on-one situation in the box. If he can’t get the ball, he won’t get any opportunity.”
Tactically, Neuer's intelligence allows Bayern and Germany to play a high line and press high to win the ball back in the opposition half. The security of Neuer controlling the space behind the centre-backs – and the confidence with which he does so – has completely changed the options available to his team, and effectively means they can reduce the opposition to feeling like they are a man down without anyone having been sent off.
Such intelligence also explains that while plenty try to imitate Neuer, and the German is almost always held to be the paradigm of the modern goalkeeper, few are able to succeed in emulating him.
Neuer's coach for Germany, Joachim Löw, once said that the keeper was so good he could play in midfield; this quote is often misrepresented to imply that Neuer's passing game is so good that he could play in midfield.
It is, in fact, quite different: in the same way Lahm thrived instantly when moved into midfield because of his intelligence and awareness, so would Neuer.
There is always the matter of what happens if opponents do take advantage of the high line. This is where Neuer's famed passing game does come into its own; with his high position the goalkeeper can sweep up any long balls aimed at opposition strikers, preventing any counters before they become dangerous, and then with his accurate distribution - honed by an upbringing in Schalke's famed Knappenschmiede academy – turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
Converting a goalkeeper into an outfield player in this fashion, then, is not a defensive move. It is, in fact, the beginning of an attack and Neuer's high position and passing game permit his side to take advantage of the opposition's lack of shape.
Accordingly, and to borrow a phrase from Cruyff, Neuer is perhaps the perfect subject for the Dutchman's maxim of the goalkeeper being the first attacker. It may sound simple, that bringing the goalkeeper off his line creates an extra man, thereby creating an overload elsewhere on the field, but it is a revolutionary break with prevailing orthodoxy, which dictates that keepers should be consigned to their box, shot-stopping their main task. It is, however, only a keeper with Neuer's perfect blend of basic skills and formidable intelligence that is capable of undertaking the role.
The mention of Cruyff leads to one of his best-known disciples, Pep Guardiola, who worked with Neuer at Bayern between 2013 and 2016. Neuer's pass accuracy shot up and number of long passes decreased considerably while working under the Catalan tactician, whose meticulous tactical work certainly laid the foundations for the Neuer we know today.
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